THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Rams are preparing to enter the 2020 league year without a lot of space to maneuver under the salary cap, in large part because of a top-heavy roster.
Quarterback Jared Goff will account for the largest cap hit in the league in 2020 at just over $36 million, defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s salary cap number is $25 million, and he's followed by running back Todd Gurley and receiver Brandin Cooks, whose salary cap hits amount to $17.25 million and $16.8 million, respectively.
While it might appear the Rams could be hamstrung, they have proved over the past few years that they are not afraid of taking chances and making bold moves -- which could make for a very interesting offseason as they prepare for the draft and free agency.
"The perception would be right that it's complicated," Rams general manager Les Snead said about the Rams' salary cap situation at the outset of the offseason, adding later, "Do think there's always going to be changes and there's changes needed for improvement. But do think we have a core here of players that are in their prime that can still contribute, help us win like they have the last three years. That's part of the plan."
The Rams are projected to have just over $21 million in salary cap space and will save another $4.25 million because of veteran safety Eric Weddle’s decision to retire.
And they will need to be savvy in the draft because they do not own a first-round pick after sending it, along with a 2021 first-round selection, to the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for Jalen Ramsey.
Here's a look at five players the Rams will need to make decisions about this offseason and an early prediction on whether they'll stay or go.
Todd Gurley, running back
2019 stats: Rushed for 857 yards and 12 touchdowns on 223 carries and caught 31 passes for two touchdowns in 15 games.
2020 salary: $5.5 million; cap savings if released/traded: $2.9 million/$4.65 million; dead money if released/traded: $20.15 million/$12.6 million.
Gurley has been the star of the Rams since he was selected with the 10th overall pick in 2015, but the last 14 months have been puzzling and frustrating and have raised enough questions about the relationship between Gurley and the organization that perhaps it's time for both parties to move on.
That's easier said than done, however, given the four-year, $45 million guaranteed contract that is scheduled to keep Gurley with the team through the 2023 season and accounts for a massive dead-money hit if he is released. And a trade? That would be no easy feat to pull off either, given the uncertainty surrounding the health of his left knee and how much more pounding it can take over the long term.
Prediction: Keep him around. Gurley might not be the hurdling star he once was, but he still is a very good back who will continue to be the difference between winning and losing, as long as he is used. Plus, you can't afford to move on from him.
Brandin Cooks, wide receiver
2019 stats: Caught 42 passes for 583 yards and two touchdowns in 14 games.
2020 salary: $8 million; cap savings if released/traded: $13 million/$1 million; dead money if released/traded: $29.8 million/$17.8 million.
The Rams sent a first- and sixth-round pick to the New England Patriots in exchange for Cooks, then signed him to a five-year, $81 million deal before he played a snap in L.A. In 2018, Cooks proved to be the speedy weapon needed to make the offense operate at its highest level. He caught 80 passes for 1,204 yards and five touchdowns.
Last season, however, Cooks' production declined while Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp emerged as quarterback Jared Goff's go-to receivers. Cooks also dealt with multiple concussions that caused for great concern and kept him sidelined for two games. Josh Reynolds started in his absence.
Prediction: Cooks' contract seems nearly impossible to unload, so the Rams must find a way to use him like a No. 1 receiver.
Rob Havenstein, right tackle
2019 stats: Started nine games.
2020 salary: $3.25 million; cap savings if released/traded: $1.65 million/$5.4 million; dead money if released/traded: $6.15 million/$2.4 million.
The Rams' offensive line struggled last season and Havenstein's contribution to the uneven play was the aspect no one could have predicted -- especially given that he was only a year removed from signing a four-year, $32.5 million extension. But the formidable right tackle unexpectedly struggled (eight penalties, second most on the team) before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 10. Havenstein returned to full participation in practice with three games to play but remained inactive on game days, as rookie Bobby Evans demonstrated improvement and stability in Havenstein's absence.
Prediction: Havenstein could be a trade candidate as the season approaches if a team is in need of a starting-caliber right tackle.
Clay Matthews, outside linebacker
2019 stats: Eight sacks, 11 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, 27 tackles
2020 salary: $3.75 million; cap savings if released/traded: $3.75 million/$5.75 million; dead money if released/traded: $2 million/$0.
Matthews, 33, proved he had plenty of football remaining in him last season. Playing opposite Dante Fowler Jr., Matthews produced eight sacks, his most since the 2014 season. He is expected to remain a key contributor as a veteran pass-rusher next season, but he could also represent a tough choice among decision-makers as they search for ways to create more room under the salary cap.
Prediction: If the Rams are able to retain Fowler, who is scheduled to become a free agent in March, they could move on from Matthews and rely on younger players Samson Ebukam and Ogbo Okoronkwo to fill his role.
Nickell Robey-Coleman, cornerback
2019 stats: Played in 16 games, started three. Seven pass deflections, two forced fumbles.
2020 salary: $3.5 million; cap savings if released/traded: $4 million/$4 million; dead money if released/traded: $500,000/$500,000.
In three seasons with the Rams, Robey-Coleman has proved himself as one of the top slot cornerbacks in the league, known for breaking up screen plays before they develop and perhaps notorious for the hit in the NFC Championship Game in 2018 that ultimately changed the NFL rulebook. But for a team that's looking to create room under the salary cap, Robey-Coleman might find himself to be a luxury they can no longer afford inside a position group that also includes younger and less expensive options in Troy Hill, Darious Williams and David Long.
Prediction: Robey-Coleman has been a key contributor and would be difficult to move on from, but $4 million in savings could make it tempting to release or trade him.